Sodium Potassium Pump: Definition, Function & Importance

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson describes the function and importance of the sodium potassium pump. It contains real-world examples and an illustration to guide your understanding. A summary and brief quiz are also included.

Importance of the Sodium Potassium Pump

Right now, nerve impulses are traveling throughout your body. None of these impulses would be possible without the aid of the sodium potassium pump (NaK pump). The sodium potassium pump is a specialized type of transport protein found in your cell membranes. The cell membrane is the semi-permeable outer barrier of many cells. The NaK pump's job is to move potassium ions into the cell while simultaneously moving sodium ions out of the cell.

This process is important for a variety of reasons. For example, in nerve cells, the sodium potassium pump creates gradients of both sodium and potassium ions. Gradients are formed when you have an area of higher concentration next to an area of lower concentration. These gradients are then used to transmit electrical signals that travel along nerves. Without this process, your nerve cells wouldn't function.

Nerve cells aren't the only place the sodium potassium pump is used. In fact, the function of this pump underlies most cellular processes. For example, the pump is used by your kidneys to maintain Na (sodium) and K (potassium) balances in the body. It also plays a role in maintaining blood pressure and controls cardiac contractions. If your heartbeat is steady, thank the sodium potassium pump.

How It Works

Now that we've discussed why the NaK pump is important, let's examine how it functions. Here is an illustration that can assist you in your understanding.

NaK Pump
NaK Pump

The illustration contains a series of sequential pictures demonstrating how the NaK pump functions. Notice how the pump is embedded into the cell membrane. Here, you'll notice how the pump is open to the inside of the cell.

When in this position, the pump is able to bond with three Na (sodium) ions. This is possible because of the pump's shape. Once this bonding occurs, the cell uses ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to initiate the pumping action. ATP is the energy currency used by cells.

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